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Texas Railroad Commission to hire quake specialist

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas operations, said Tuesday that it will hire a seismologist to investigate whether there is a connection between energy production and earthquakes.

The move follows a meeting Thursday in Azle attended by more than 800 residents, many of whom told Railroad Commissioner David Porter and other officials about the damage and disruption caused by a swarm of recent quakes.

The U.S. Geological Survey recorded close to 30 quakes from November to Dec. 23.

At a Railroad Commission meeting Tuesday in Austin, Porter proposed that Executive Director Milton Rister add a seismologist to the agency’s staff. The position was posted later Tuesday on the commission’s website.

“It is imperative that the Commission remain engaged and involved in gathering more evidence and data into any possible causation between oil and gas activities and seismic events,” Porter said in a statement released by the agency.

“Commission rules and regulations must be based on sound science and proven facts. In order to do so, I propose the Commission hire an in-house seismologist.”

While the move was generally welcomed, some people said they would have preferred that the position be independent of the commission, which is generally viewed as favoring the industry.

“I don’t think anybody is going to believe an in-house person is not biased to some degree,” Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes said. “It’s better than nothing, but the perception of people is that in-house will cover their own butts. That’s the way my citizens will look at it.”

Reno is a town of about 3,000 in northeast Parker County on the Tarrant County line.

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, whose district encompasses Parker and Wise counties, said he’s not bothered by the in-house position.

“I don’t know where else you would put it,” King said.

Because of its lack of earthquake history, Texas has never had a state seismologist, King said, but “several of us have asked the Railroad Commission to get engaged” in the issue of earthquakes, which he said has prompted “a lot of constituents” to contact him.

“My hope is that the seismologist’s role will be to conduct a comprehensive analysis” with other researchers, regulators and the industry “to figure out what’s going on,” King said.

Fort Worth lawyer Jim Bradbury, who has followed environmental issues related to energy production, said Tuesday that he would have also preferred that the position be independent of the Railroad Commission. He said that was the case in Arkansas. That state’s seismologist investigated a swarm of quakes in 2011 and recommended shutting down two injection wells.

“You want a scientist to give you pure, unvarnished advice,” Bradbury said. In an agency as politically sensitive as the Railroad Commission, Bradbury said, “Is a top-level scientist going to do what they need to do?”

In 2008 and 2009, there was an outbreak of small quakes near Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. A seismic study by researchers at Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Austin identified an injection well in the area as the “plausible cause” of the quakes. The quakes ended after the injection well stopped operating in August 2009.

Four years ago, Cleburne, in Johnson County, was rocked by a string of smaller quakes. Eventually, two injection wells in the area were shut down.

Last month, scientists at SMU deployed four seismic monitors provided by the U.S. Geological Survey to collect data focusing on a 5- to 6-mile stretch between Azle and Reno. The researchers will use 15 other sensors in a wider area and expect to take several months to complete their study, depending on the amount of seismic activity.

In a separate 2012 study, Cliff Frohlich, associate director of the Institute for Geophysics at UT and a participant in the DFW Airport study, found that while not all injection wells were linked to earthquakes, “injection-triggered earthquakes are more common than is generally recognized.” Still, he said last week, it is difficult to link a particular quake to a particular well.

Frohlich’s 2012 study, like the current SMU research, placed monitors in the Barnett Shale to chart small seismic events and compare them with the location and size of injection wells.

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